Not all in Clinton’s administration were happy with his grudging acceptance of the UN-Iraqi agreement negotiated by Secretary General Kofi Annan. It is likely, however, that at least some were grateful to have a way out of their self-created political trap. Weeks of escalating rhetoric against the backdrop of a massive and carefully choreographed military buildup in the Persian Gulf and continued defiance in Baghdad, had brought Washington to the brink of launching a major military strike. The only alternative would have been to acknowledge that it really had no viable policy toward Iraq.

By the time that moment approached, however, it had become embarrassingly and publicly clear that such an attack, however punishing, would do little or nothing to diminish Iraq’s capacity to develop biological and chemical weapons. It would, according to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Hugh Shelton, kill a minimum of 1,500 Iraqi civilians. It would also raise the political temperature in the region to an unpredictably dangerous level, especially in countries governed by US allies, and put the question of double standards back at center stage for the Arab street, already outraged over US failures to press Israel in the peace process.

The danger now is that the US, having reluctantly done the right thing in agreeing to Annan’s mission and then in voting in the Security Council to accept the deal he wrought, is keeping up its preparations to do the wrong thing in the not very distant future. By continuing the military buildup in the area and especially by asserting the claim that previous UN resolutions somehow legitimize any future US strike against Iraq, Washington has made it clear that it does not recognize any UN or other multilateral constraints on its action.

Washington has failed to fashion a policy that addresses comprehensively and effectively the global threat of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, or one that replaces the indiscriminate economic sanctions regime that has so devastated Iraq’s civilian society with new forms of sanctions that would target Iraq’s military rulers and their entourage. Popular pressure — at both the domestic and international levels — played a key role in persuading the Clinton administration that a military assault on Iraq would be politically counterproductive.

In the US, the initial scattered small demonstrations protesting the threat of air strikes were soon joined by a wide range of hesitations, concerns and doubts voiced by Pentagon officials, editorial page writers and middle America. Certainly it is true that some of the opposition came from the right, from Republicans in Congress uneasy only because they did not trust the White House to go far enough in destroying Iraq, and some media hesitation was voiced only after congressional divisions emerged. But the breadth of opposition eventually crept up on Washington policymakers. At the Ohio State town meeting, the challenge to the administration’s bombing plans lay not only in the protesters shouting down Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, but in the questioners themselves. Despite being vetted by CNN producers, many were well informed and skeptical of US claims and some were strongly opposed to a military strike. Tellingly, the Albright-Cohen-Berger team could not provide serious answers. As a tool of asserting or manufacturing consent, the “town meeting” was a debacle.

Perhaps even more persuasive was the attitude of other governments. In the region, even the thoroughly authoritarian and staunchly pro-US monarchies of the Gulf largely stood by, with the exception of Kuwait, refusing to jump onto Washington’s war wagon. Saudi Arabia convinced the US not to request use of Saudi bases for launching air strikes, so Riyadh would not have to refuse. Bahrain felt compelled to withdraw an earlier promise of military support. In the UN Security Council, French and Russian opposition to military action was crucial; one could not help but take into account the nascent efforts by Paris and Moscow to begin nibbling at the edges of the seven-year-long unchallenged US control of Middle East diplomacy.

Even Tony Blair’s Britain, caught between its consistent backing of Clinton’s war efforts and its current position as president of the EU, moved to distance itself from the US once Annan returned from Baghdad with a negotiated settlement. British diplomats endorsed the UN-Iraqi accord much more wholeheartedly than their American counterparts and remained noticeably cool to Clinton administration claims that the new Council resolution somehow authorized a future unilateral US strike.

The US was stuck. Ambassador Bill Richardson declared that the resolution endorsing the secretary general’s agreement represented a “victory” for the US because its language included the threat of “severest” sanctions if Iraq again violated the terms. But Washington is more isolated than ever in its claims that first, the actual language of the resolution means something other than what it says about collective UN, not unilateral US, action being required; and second, that the new resolution is irrelevant anyway be cause the US already has authority for unilateral action based on earlier resolutions. (The resolution states that the Council decides “to remain actively seized of the matter, in order to ensure implementation of this resolution, and to secure peace and security in the area.” In UN-speak, “remain actively seized” means the issue remains on the Council’s agenda.)

This time Washington accepted a diplomatic way out of the box. But the threat of a US attack remains serious, even if the constraints facing the Clinton administration remain much the same. Clinton’s hostility to the Iraq-UN agreement and the Security Council resolution endorsing it may well reflect the influence of congressional unilateralism at work. But however pragmatic its origins, the position indicates an acceptance by the White House of the anti-UN fury raging across Washington.

What is badly needed now — as it has been for some time — is a new approach that targets Iraq’s weapons programs in the context of an effective international response to weapons proliferation beyond Baghdad and that recognizes the centrality of the UN in Middle East diplomacy. At least four components should be the basis for such a new set of policies.

First, on the specific issue of Iraqi compliance with UN resolutions, Washington should acknowledge that this is indeed an issue for the United Nations, and not for the US on its own. It should affirm the actual terms of the ceasefire resolution regarding elimination of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and stop moving the goal posts. The UN resolution does not require that Saddam Hussein be ousted before sanctions can be lifted. However desirable such a change might be, the persistent US demand for it provides only a negative incentive to Baghdad, effectively insuring non-compliance, and undermines the legitimacy of the UN. The Clinton administration, moreover, cannot maintain its specious claim that earlier Security Council resolutions authorize current unilateral military strikes.

Second, the US must stop simply regretting the civilian devastation caused by the economic sanctions and allow the UN to end them. Sanctions are having only a marginal impact on the regime, but continue to wreak havoc on the Iraqi population, particularly children and other vulnerable groups. The most recent UNICEF report documents 4,500 children under the age of five dying every month from a combination of inadequate medical care, unclean water, nutritional deficiencies and other results of the sanctions. A tight international arms embargo should remain in effect against Iraq, but easing the economic sanctions is necessary to allow Iraq access to the spare parts needed to take advantage of the recent increase in oil exports allowed in the UN’s oil-for-food deal. Currently, Iraq remains unable to produce enough oil to take advantage of that increase, since its drilling and refining equipment has not been restored since the 1991 war.

Third, the US should take the lead in strengthening and broadening what is now an Iraq-specific arms control regime. Since 1991, punishing Iraq has superseded the larger goal of monitoring and destroying weapons of mass destruction. This undermines legitimate international interest in non-proliferation. By making the weapons monitoring regime humiliating, indeterminate and punitive rather than focused on disarmament goals, the US undermines the potential of permanent UN-organized monitoring regimes against a whole host of unsavory governments.

The UN should create a new international nonproliferation regime to challenge the entire trade in chemical and biological weapons. Such a sanctions regime would target such companies as the Rockville, Maryland American Type Cultures Collection, that provided anthrax, E-coli bacteria, botulism and more to the government of Iraq throughout the 1980s (as well as bubonic plague stock and “non-lethal” anthrax to alleged white supremacists in the US). This approach would also target the US government itself, whose Commerce Department licensed those shipments to Iraq, as well as the governments of Russia, France, Germany and other countries that licensed or did not prevent similar shipments.

Increased disarmament efforts should also include implementing the specific call in Resolution 687 to establish a nuclear weapons-free and a weapons of mass destruction-free zone throughout the Middle East. The US has so far been unwilling even to discuss such an option, since it would mean acknowledging and challenging Israel’s advanced nuclear arsenal and the weapons of mass destruction maintained by other US forces and allies throughout the region.

Finally, we must support and work to consolidate the new centrality of the United Nations in this crisis and beyond, in preventive diplomacy, and counter-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This crisis has demonstrated the extent to which the UN can provide real political constraints on the capacity of a government, even the “sole superpower,” to initiate war. Despite the anti-UN bluster coming out of Washington, the longer-term lesson of this crisis is that the UN role should be expanded beyond the immediate demands of Iraq crisis management and that the world organization should take the lead in forging a new international Middle East peace initiative to challenge the destructive hegemony of the US over regional diplomacy.

How to cite this article:

Phyllis Bennis "From the Editors (Spring 1998)," Middle East Report 206 (Spring 1998).

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